City Paper is not for tourists
Christmas is always a time of nostalgia, but this year there is something particularly poignant to remember: the passing of Taylor Hanson’s all too brief incarnation as the most perfectly androgynous fantasy object in pop history. When I first heard “MMMBop,” I couldn’t tell if the singer was male or female, black or white; after I saw the video, all I knew was that Taylor was white. Even the name didn’t help. Here was a flaxen-haired cherub who looked like Kate Winslet, only softer—yet people kept talking about the Oklahoman trio’s three “brothers.” Well, now the bloom is off the hermaphroditic rose: On the apple-cheeked siblings’ yuletide cash-in, Taylor sounds distinctly like a teenage boy. He can sing OK, in that annoyingly mannered white-soul style; he actually delivers a listenable version of an Xmas-rock chestnut whose famous original version does not beg to be covered, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (although I confess that the main allure of Hanson’s cover is hearing Taylor plead with a putative lover). Elsewhere, the boys do lively but dorky versions of “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Little Saint Nick,” and “Run Rudolph Run,” and post-pubescent eldest brother Isaac sings two ghastly power ballads the lads penned for the occasion. The album’s high point, however, comes on the “Silent Night Medley,” when Taylor sings, “Holy infant, so tender and mild,” and for a moment you think he means himself. —James FaLaLaLaLochart
Ray Stevens Christmas:
Through a Different Window
When I was a lad, the Lays potato chip company devised a promotion whereby it gave away free 45 rpm records with its bags of deliciously crunchy snacks. Naturally, I insisted that my mother buy only Lays brand and buy them often. The first free salt-covered disc she brought home was “Harry the Hairy Ape,” by Ray Stevens. This was my introduction to Mr. Stevens’ oeuvre. (The second platter was “My Bonnie,” by Tony Sheridan, featuring a group called the Beatles, with whom I was already slightly familiar. This record is apparently of some value these days. I often wonder what happened to my copy.) I thought “Harry the Hairy Ape” was the greatest record of all time (after, of course, “Purple People Eater,” by Sheb Wooley). As I grew, Ray was always there—“Ahab the Arab,” “Guitarzan,” “The Streak,” “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow.” But as rock ’n’ roll took over more of the day-to-day operations of my soul, I gradually lost touch with Ray. Somewhere along the line he became a country artist. Now, Ray has his own Ray Stevens Sound Studio, his own web site (www.raystevens.com), and a new holiday album. None of the music sounds particularly Christmasy, except for small quotations here and there. Most of the songs were written by someone named C.W. Kalb Jr. To read the titles is to hear Ray’s high, hyperhick vocal and guess the punch lines: “Guilt for Christmas,” “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas,” “Xerox Xmas Letter,” “The Annual Office Christmas Party.” The tune that almost brought back the Ray of old is “The Little Drummer Boy Next Door.” I’m sure Ray will be playing these on some Nashville Network broadcast—or, if Bob Hope still had a contract with NBC, he and Ray could dress up as hillbillies and lip-sync “Redneck Christmas.” But as the Shangri-Las said, you can never go home anymore. (And that’s called “sad.”) —Dave Nuttycombe for the Holidays
A Classic Cartoon Christmas, Too
Various Unnamed Artists
Nick at Nite/550 Music
My middle-school music class was ruled by a pompadoured geek who grew so tired of the theme to Star Wars that he actually gave detention to students who whistled it. Had he paid closer attention, he would have discovered that “Heat Miser” and “Snow Miser” also held down slots on the pubescent hit parade. The Christmas special that spawned these numbers, Year Without a Santa Claus, was considerably less popular than the tunes themselves, so you’d think that Nick at Nite was doing everybody a service by choosing the tracks to lead off the follow-up to last year’s A Classic Cartoon Christmas. But with the exception of Burl Ives’ “Silver and Gold,” the rest of the cuts are mere padding. “The First Toymaker to the King” and “No More Toymakers to the King,” like “Heat” and “Snow,” see a single melody doing double duty, perhaps because superior selections from Santa Claus Is Coming to Town were already culled for the ’96 disc. “We Wish You a Hairy Chestwig” is neither old enough to be “classic” nor the best track from Ren & Stimpy’s Crock O’ Christmas. And “Holidays,” from Madeline’s Favorite Songs, can be recommended only to listeners who thrill to the sound of session singers pretending to be both children and French. With a running time of 22:34 (of which roughly five minutes is essential listening), CCC2 should have been appended to its predecessor, but it’s pretty clear why it wasn’t. Merry Xma$, kids! —Glenn “Come Donner and” Dixon
Xmas Marks the Spot
Not just a quick-buck label sampler—although it is that, packaged with a wrap-around sheet plugging the albums most of its dozen cuts are pulled from—Xmas Marks the Spot is also a pretty good demonstration of how the music of the holiday can be twisted to fit many different aesthetics. Collegiate types can dig Big Star’s classic “Jesus Christ,” Mono Puff’s more recent “Careless Santa” (which also merited inclusion on last year’s Rhino new-wave yule collection) and Kristin Hersh’s “Amazing Grace.” Arthur Lyman’s brief rendering in exotica of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is agreeably goofy, while Lord Nelson’s “Party for Santa Claus” and Joseph Spence’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” are giddy in both a fun and culturally significant way; a good alternative to this disc, if those two sound appealing, is their source, MAS! A Caribbean Christmas Party—which, come to think of it, is overdue for a sequel. There’s true beauty from Marta Sebestyen and Evan Johns (no, not together) and, to round things out, a few painfully tasteful choices from the likes of the American Boychoir. Still, the disc’s satisfying eclecticism reflects the spirit of friendship that’s the season’s truest gift. It could almost, if not quite, save you from making a mix tape for family and office get-togethers. Or as Arch Campbell might put it, this is one darned Spot you won’t want put out. —Rickey “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by” Wright
Holiday Moods: An Enchanted Christmas
Thomas O’Keefe and John Wai, Executive Producers
This is Jingle Cats without the cats. Instead, familiar melodies like “Greensleeves,” “Joy to the World,” and “Winter Wonderland” have been given the mystic, Deep Forest treatment: pan flutes, Eastern percussion, woodland accents, tribal rhythms, hypnotic washes of synthesized ambience. It’s easy these days. Import the samples, apply some filters, adjust the settings, and press “Start.” Since there is no artist listed, may we assume that the “executive producers” are behind the keyboards? Liner notes tell us that the recording was made with “state-of-the-art” technology—quote marks theirs, so maybe it’s not really state-of-the-art—which “enhances the multi-layered sound and creates swirling stereo panning effects that will engulf you.” Like your big Aunt Minnie’s hugs? Perhaps not, but the tracks float into one another so the holiday rave can be sustained. Still, these tunes are largely indestructible. “Silent Night” as a broadcast from the Crab Nebula seems oddly appropriate. Some songs don’t translate as well as others, however. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” sounds like Junior was testing his budget Casio after too much eggnog. But even with tablas and tambouri, “White Christmas” remains white, and you find yourself humming along. Hey, have a pagan little Christmas. —Dave “Little Drummer Boy” Nuttycombe
Enchantment: A Magical Christmas
New-agers, being gullible, fuzzy-minded refugees from spiritual common sense, don’t have much use for Christmas qua Christ-mas. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to reap maximum financial benefit from this enormously lucrative season, so David Arkenstone’s Enchantment is just one more softy-puffy exhortation to share the season’s mystical magic by giving money to spooky-eyed freaks whose stock in trade is to bore you out of your faith. The word “sparkle” is all over this recording’s liner notes, so consider yourself warned: That’s new-age code for the twinkly simper of a cheap synthesizer glittering its way up and down the scale to signal childlike wonder. The decent numbers here are distorted and dumbed down, their rhythms flattened and pale strands of Latin or Celtic tinsel sprinkled atop them, so even new-agers—who know far less than children—will understand. In between the uninteresting seasonal selections—any votes for “Do You Hear What I Hear?”—are passages from the idiotic project The Narada Nutcracker, for which the label assembled its musicians with the sole purpose of rendering undanceable, if not exactly unlistenable, Tchaikovsky’s great ballet music. There’s a relatively inoffensive overture, but the “March,” “Children’s Galop,” and “Waltz of the Snowflakes” are drained of syncopation, charm, and unexpected grace notes, leaving…well, the tune. Hey, elfwipes—if you don’t like the music, don’t play it. —Bring a Torch, Arion Berger
Christmas With the Louvin Brothers
The Louvin Brothers
Razor and Tie
“Preacher! Tell them that Satan is real, too…” But you needn’t look, as the classic recitation says, to “songs that give praise to idols and sinful things of this world” to find him, for he was surely in the production booth during Ira and Charlie Louvin’s yuletide sessions. Frequently cited as the epitome of the country brother harmony team, the Louvin Brothers had a sound that stood best on its own merits, but the exigencies of the business in ’50s–’60s Nashville often worked against them. So it is that the brothers’ voices, dripping with echo, fight for position amid cavernous choirs, gimmicky keyboard twinklings, and too much syrupy steel. There are a few tracks among the 12 traditional numbers and two originals that don’t utterly drown the Louvins in slush, and Ira’s mandolin and Charlie’s guitar are purportedly in evidence, but good luck finding them. And if Beelzebub was behind the board, the Scrooges at Razor and Tie responsible for the skimpiness of the otherwise laudable George Jones reissues must take the blame for printing only the utterly useless (and presumably original) liner notes. We learn that “nothing will ever replace the treasured remembrance of an old-fashioned Christmas ‘back home,’” but we get no session dates, no release dates, and, despite the horde of session musicians treacling up the tracks, no list of players. Meanwhile, we learn the names of the dozen-odd label stooges who want to be associated with this mess. Well, as the brothers sing on the disc’s liveliest selection, “Ding, ding, dong—what a big parade!” —Peace on Earth, Good Will to Glenn Dixon
What a Wonderful Christmas
Louis Armstrong & Friends
A traditional JAZZ christmas
Listening to these anthologies is rather like rummaging through an attic and discovering an old candy-stuffed Christmas stocking. Time has decayed most of its contents, but a few remain esculent. Largely composed of ’50s jazz and pop vocals, What a Wonderful Christmas is the more entertaining option. Six tracks feature Louis Armstrong, jazz’s Saint Nick, gamely growling and tooting through dated seasonal novelties (“Cool Yule,” “’Zat You, Santa Claus?”) and battling arranger Gordon Jenkins’ sodden strings on traditional tunes (“White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland”). Satch actually appears to be enjoying himself on two breezy numbers backed by Benny Carter’s studio band: “Christmas in New Orleans” and “Christmas Night in Harlem” (“Everyone will be lit up like a Christmas tree”). Four of Louis’ lady friends contribute to this holiday grab bag. Cutting a Norman Bateslike swath through a plum-pudding vocal choir, Dinah Washington belts a heartfelt “Silent Night,” while Eartha Kitt purrs her material-girl wish list to “Santa Baby” and tigress Lena Horne warns that “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” but Peggy Lee can barely stay awake through the Hallmark clunker “It’s Christmas Time Again.” Backed by Lionel Hampton’s orchestra, Sonny Parker croons a feeble cover of Charles Brown’s earthy R&B hit “Merry Christmas, Baby,” while Louis Jordan is uncharacteristically subdued on the cloyingly reverent “May Everyday Be Christmas,” and Mel Tormé, accompanying himself on piano at a 1954 club gig, reprises his cash cow “The Christmas Song.” (Childhood flashbacks of Tormé warbling this tune on television clad in an elf suit still inspire holiday nightmares.) The collection’s sole instrumental, a vibrant 1962 Duke Ellington jam on “Jingle Bells,” is its only concession to art, a diamond among rhinestones. The Armstrong-Carter numbers and the Tormé track also appear on a traditional JAZZ christmas, a cheaply produced, hideously art-directed package of vocals and instrumentals. A bestirred Peggy Lee chirps “Ring Those Christmas Bells,” but Al Hibbler sounds as if he quaffed a few too many eggnogs before his “Silent Night” session. Lionel Hampton’s halfhearted vocal on “Swingle Jingle” is redeemed by a gruff-toned, unidentified Ben Websterish tenor sax solo; Les Brown’s dance band bobsleds through “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”; saxophonist Gene Ammons (paired with uncredited sax player Sonny Stitt) has raunchy fun with “Swingin’ for Christmas,” a bebop medley of holiday tunes that sounds as if it was recorded at the bottom of a well. Master guitarist Kenny Burrell, smothered by a supermarket string section, can’t salvage “Little Drummer Boy,” the Christmas song from hell. Ahmad Jamal provides the CD’s finest moments with an impressionistic version of “Snowfall” filled with artful pauses and angular splashes of pianistic color. Jamal’s achievement is nullified by three dire Ramsey Lewis cuts: “Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Christmas Blues,” and the loveliest of all seasonal pop tunes, Frank Loesser’s lilting “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Lewis’ insufferable keyboard work on these tracks—formulaic funk, robotic licks, heavy-handed tremolos—puts the Xcrement back in Xmas.
—Have a Holly Joel E. Siegel
Ren & Stimpy’s
Crock O’ Christmas
Why wait for Christmas-dinner overindulgence to make you queasy? Get a head start with seasonal tales of yak shaving and hairball sculpting, decorating ideas that put to good use dirty diapers and leftover coleslaw, and fashion tips involving tomato-skin hats, rubber nipples, and nasally dependent cheese logs. For all its anarchic spirit, the ritual of the annual Yaksmas observance is surprisingly well codified, and it’s all laid out in Ren & Stimpy’s collection of skits, custom ditties, and irreverent rewrites of familiar carols. For what could have been a crass cash-in, Crock O’ Christmas is lovingly crafted, both well written and imaginatively arranged, and it boasts astonishingly thorough notes, providing not only lyrics but transcriptions of between-song patter. (Perhaps by doing right by the characters they took from him, the Nickelodeon muckety-mucks were attempting to atone for the fact that the name of series creator and original Ren voice John Kricfalusi appears nowhere in the package.) For a TV tie-in, Crock is nicely self-contained. Newcomers need turn to the original episodes only to find out that Stimpy and Stinky’s What Is Christmas? is in fact a father-and-son duet between cat and, um, fart. It’s debatable whether the novelty of R&S’s hwarf-punctuated odes will wear off after repeat listens, but Crock is definitely worthy of an annual spin. Give it to a child you like—whose parents you don’t—and be sure to refrain from bromides that the most prized gifts are the ones you make yourself.
—Glenn “32 Feet and Eight Little” Dixons
Come on Christmas
After an early-’90s whirlwind fling that ended on a nasty note, Sharon Stone remarked that kissing Dwight Yoakam was like “eating a dirt sandwich.” Because of both my sad addiction to juicy Hollywood gossip and obvious lack of a life, I felt it was necessary to choose a side in the brouhaha. So, after deducing that Stone was just a bitter, bitchy starlet who couldn’t wrangle her man, I went with Yoakam on that one. In my opinion, his kisses tasted just fine. But after listening to Come on Christmas, Yoakam’s smarmy attempt at yuletide merriment, I’m thinking I didn’t read my Peoples closely enough. This greasy, halfhearted attempt is disappointing in every way, from the creepy cover art to the consistently unimaginative approach the guitar man takes on the album’s eight standards and two originals. Like a harried mother making a Christmas Eve dash to the closest toy store, Yoakam wants to get in and out of this 34-minute mess as quickly as possible. “Run Run Rudolph” opens with some promising Tex-Mex twang but soon beelines for Blahsville. “Come on Christmas” plays like a Valium-assisted suicide note, while the other Yoakam-penned song, “Santa Can’t Stay,” is a wayward gallop about Mom kicking a plastered Pop out of the house while junior realizes the holidays suck. So set the record straight this Christmas, and instead of listening to Yoakam’s folly, gather up the family and spend a nice evening watching Basic Instinct. —Sean Daly It’s Cold Outside
The Valley of Christmas
Full disclosure: I hate this drawly-voiced fraud with the white-hot intensity of a thousands suns. The panicked intellectuals at NPR got no bargain when they hired the Romanian emigrant to wryly comment on the state of the United States from his own unique perspective. Among his observations: We are shallow, the government is hypocritical, and the culture breeds selfishness and rampant consumerism. So I was prepared to use the opportunity of “reviewing” his Christmas offering to tear this guy another one of what he is, but upon listening to this spoken-word project, I have to confess that I don’t know what he hopes to accomplish by it. The Valley of Christmas is a kind of spavined modern-day nativity story starring selfish yuppie parents and their auspicious baby, Almond Joy. And a gallery of freakish American loonies. No one can turn a mild, tolerant, liberal bohemian into an iron-filing-spitting jingoistic nutball like this snotty son of a bitch. In his rolling accent, he spreads his smarmy snideness all over our fair country: our food, our religious diversity, our cars, our sports teams, our families, our trees, our dreams. After an hour of listening to this unenlightening jerk gripe his way through a surreal and rather unappetizing holiday tale, Christmas never felt farther away. We pay this foreign twit cash money to publicly snicker at us? Of course, he’s canny enough to garb the snideness of his languid slash-and-burnfests as satires on snobbery if he has to, but it won’t wash. Come back, Garrison Keillor; all is forgiven! —Arion He Made His Bed in a Berger Rude
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Christmas With Charles Osgood
The bulk of this recording—29 minutes and 45 seconds—is “An American Christmas,” written by Chief Master Sgt. Michael Davis of the Air Force Band. A historical tour of the diversity of the American yuletide experience as expressed musically, it was a PBS special in 1984. And this version had the same effect on me as most PBS holiday specials. That is, every time I put it on I soon found my mind wandering. Shortly thereafter, I would follow, right out of the room. Later, realizing that the noise upstairs was not the neighbors fighting again, I’d go turn the machine off. Which is not to say that there’s anything particularly wrong with this disc. It’s a heaping fruitcake of earnest holiday entertainment, perfect for those who find A Prairie Home Companion entertaining. Charles Osgood’s hearty voice nicely complements the soaring strings and 800,000 Tabernaclers. His reading of the “no room at the inn” story from Luke to the accompaniment of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is properly reverent. I dearly miss Osgood’s daily radio show on WTOP. Every so often, he would haul out his banjo and comment on the news, Weird Al–style. Here, his original “The First Time the Christmas Story Was Told” gets the full choral treatment. But the sound of all those extremely white voices massed in harmony creates vibrations on my eardrums that interrupt the regular flow of neural energy in my brain, causing a vague sense of depression. Though I must admit that their version of “Shenandoah” (not included here) sends me happily to sleep. Isn’t that odd? —Dave Nuttycombe All Ye Faithful
Christmas Cocktails, Part Two
Now this is the Christmas I remember! As white as white can be and zonked out of its gourd, man! Yet another in Capitol Records’ apparently never-ending “Ultra-Lounge” series, this collection of 20 holiday favorites by easy-listening artists from the ’50s and ’60s is one of its more successful compilations. Guitarist Al Caiola sets the festive mood with “Sleigh Ride,” which segues neatly into Hammond organist Jimmy McGriff’s bossa nova “Jingle Bells.” Martin Denny turns “Silent Night” into “Exotic Night.” To hear Julie London purr “Warm December” is to cast away all thoughts of the season’s religious significance. Nancy Wilson isn’t just tossing off some contractual obligation with “The Christmas Waltz”; the elegant strings and her sultry vocal conjure a very sophisticated celebration. Of course, Dean Martin is just tossing off “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” but that’s exactly why we love the guy. Wayne Newton’s “Jingle Bell Rock” doesn’t, of course, but the Starlighters’ “Jing-A-Ling” does. Ah-ha, oh-ho! George Shearing’s “Snowfall” has been seamlessly combined with Billy May’s “Snowfall Cha Cha”—just add too much eggnog and drift away. The Ventures couple “La Bamba” with “Frosty the Snowman” for a bizarre Pee-wee Herman–style rave-up that is the perfect accompaniment for trimming one’s tree…however you wish to interpret that. The “bonus tracks” include Guy Lombardo’s indispensable “Auld Lang Syne” and big-band leader Stan Kenton answering the question, “What Is a Santa Claus?” He’s the guy who’ll bring you this album. —Dave Nuttycombe Roasting on an Open Fire
The Spirit of Christmas
With a “What Child Is This” that plays like a reject from Steve & Eydie’s Holiday in Vegas Spectacular, this Rhino reissue of Ray Charles’ 1986 Christmas album gets off to a horrendous start. But after the bluesy keyboards of “The Little Drummer Boy” all but erase memories of the poor “Child”—and the ultraswinging “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” makes you long for 12 more days—you’ll realize it’s time to kick Bing and Johnny out of the player and move The Spirit of Christmas into heavy holiday rotation. In the funky world of Mr. Charles, Rudolph bops along like a red-nosed pimp, and boys and girls “frolic and play” the Hugh Hefner way. Charles provides the perfect remedy for folks fed up with the same old yuletide standards: Gorgeous ballads “This Time of the Year” and “That Spirit of Christmas” make those distant relatives seem harmless, and reissue bonus track “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a jazzy duet with Betty Carter, negates the need for mistletoe. Over the years, Hollywood has picked apart much of this album for soundtracks (When Harry Met Sally… and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, to name a couple of flicks), and there’s good reason for that: The Spirit of Christmas is thoughtful, atmospheric, and a helluva good time.
—Sean Daly Please Come Home
Yule Be Boppin’
Like Christmas office parties, Blue Note’s yuletide gathering of contract artists is best experienced in an altered state. Half the tracks are pleasant, obligatory run-throughs of seasonal staples: guitarist Pat Martino’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the Eliane Elias trio’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” saxophonist Javon Jackson’s “Santa Baby,” pianist Jacky Terrasson’s “Adeste Fideles/Little Drummer Boy Jam,” and Dianne Reeves’ “Jingle Bells” (on which she somehow manages to mangle the nursery-school lyric). Singer-pianist Bob Dorough’s expansion of his mordant “Blue X-Mas” (“It’s the time when the greedy give a dime to the needy”) incorporates some gratuitous new moralizing and predictably falls short of the classic 1962 version he cut with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Singer-pianist Rachelle Ferrell’s semi-intelligible “Peace on Earth” is also excessively preachy but nevertheless affecting. The remaining novelty tunes are harder to take. Kurt Elling’s lounge-lizard reading of Steve Allen’s puerile “Cool Yule” (“So dig, Santa comes on big”) and Sweet Daddy Lowe’s recitation, “Be-Bop Santa Claus,” an unwarranted exhuming of Babs Gonzales’ ’50s hipster rewrite of “The Night Before Christmas,” are embarrassments. Miles Griffith’s “Zat You Santa Claus,” backed by pianist Benny Green, is a pale shadow of Louis Armstrong’s original. Darlene Edwards and Mrs. Miller fans will relish Judi Silvano’s shrill, out-of-tune “I’d Like You for Christmas.” The wife of saxophonist Joe Lovano, this hopeless, yowling vocalist also spoils the disc’s most adventurous tracks—the Bobby Watson/Jack Walrath “Cristo Redentor” and Lovano’s “Carol of the Bells.” —Joel-in-Your-Stocking E. Siegel
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas:
New and Traditional Christmas Favorites
This soundtrack album is meant to accompany—or rekindle memories of—the seasonal ripoff video of the same name, which is presented as a passage in the Belle-Beast saga that the original film skipped. The video, by all accounts, is merely another of Disney’s cynical efforts in rooking wee ones out of $12.99. Songwriters Rachel Portman and Don Black have none of the gifts for lyrical or rhythmic wit that the original, Oscar-winning team had; all that’s left is a strenuous groping toward uplift with syrupy, unconvincing results. None of the new tunes makes any sense without the movie—who is this Forte, and why is he so grouchy, telling folks, “Don’t Fall in Love”?—so Disney hedges its bets like mad. Enchanted Christmas knows which side of the fruitcake its hard sauce is on; the gummy but beautiful “As Long as There’s Christmas” gets no fewer than three airings: a sparkling rendition in the voice of Belle (Paige O’Hara), whose vocals are warm, melting, and sweet as chocolate-chip cookies. Then a reprise with a mysteriously chin-up air of determination—after a midfilm setback, perhaps?—and a full-dress soaring duet between R&B popsters Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack, who both include the track on their own Christmas discs. The album’s latter part does the trad bag, as Belle warbles, with every ounce of gritted-teeth enchanted delight she can muster, everything from “Joy to the World” to “The First Noel,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “What Child Is This,” and many more. She sings utterly alone against pumping, brass-heavy arrangements, sounding lonely and worked to death. By the time “Silent Night” rolls around, you can imagine O’Hara lathered like Secretariat, her smile frozen in place.
Ann Hampton Callaway
In her cabaret appearances, Ann Hampton Callaway delivers the goods, mixing standards and her own compositions with virtuoso scat flights, on-target impersonations, and songs spontaneously improvised from audience suggestions. But a frosty perfectionism overtakes her when she enters a recording studio. As on her four previous CDs, her singing on this Christmas collection is impeccable but coldly disengaged. Every note she produces is meticulously pitched and sustained, yet the vivacity of her club work evaporates; one gets the impression that she is listening to her own voice through headphones rather than communicating. Still, Callaway’s hard-won, peerless musicianship, like that of her sympathetic accompanists, notably pianists Mike Lang and Alan Broadbent, is nothing to scoff at. Apart from the opening hep-smoke-a-reefer (to borrow a Lenny Brucism) version of “Jingle Bells,” This Christmas is consistently tasteful and polished, and Callaway’s repertoire is fresher than the usual yuletide program. Her own romantic title composition, the Johnny Mandel/Alan and Marilyn Bergman “A Christmas Love Song,” and the tongue-twisting Ukrainian “Carol of the Bells” leaven the obligatory “White Christmas” and “Silent Night.” A “Baby It’s Cold Outside” duet with Kenny Rankin emphasizes what her singing lacks; her contributions are immaculate, but Rankin’s witty, casual interpolations are far more engaging. The CD’s only traces of warmth emerge on “God Bless My Family,” a self-penned piece commemorating friends lost to AIDS, performed as a duet with her sister, Broadway musical ingénue Liz Callaway. Otherwise you’d better toss a few logs on the fire when this ice princess starts to sing.
—“O Joel E. Night” Siegel
Christmas With Houston Person and Etta Jones
Houston Person and Etta Jones
Christmas With Houston Person and Etta Jones is something of a scam. Neither artist appears on two of the nine tracks—pianist Stan Hope’s pleasantly bland cocktail treatments of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and a seasonal medley—and saxophonist Person and singer Jones perform only one song together. Despite the bait-and-switch marketing and cheesy packaging, this CD is as comforting (and, to be frank, unmemorable) as the annual television airing of White Christmas. Person’s generic Chitlin’ Circuit tenor honks and swoops through “Blue Christmas,” “Merry Christmas Baby,” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” with assurance but little inventiveness. Jones’ vocals make the recording worthwhile. One of the last survivors of the era that spawned Billie Holiday, Helen Humes, and Dinah Washington, Jones, who resides in D.C. during the rare moments she’s not on the road, sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (which she shares with Person), “White Christmas,” and a second version of “Merry Christmas Baby” with confidence and gusto. Consistently underrated since her recording debut more than a half-century ago, Jones is a consummate jazz vocalist whose phrasing, time, and emotional sensitivity never falter.
—Joel, Joy of Man’s Desiring E. Siegel
The Christmas Album
Peace on Earth
Both of these pop-soul holiday collections contain the Flack-Bryson “As Long as There’s Christmas,” a soaring, sumptuously produced duet from the new Disney direct-to-video animated feature, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. What surrounds that track, however, illustrates the difference between faceless professionalism and heartfelt musicianship. In the mid-’60s, Flack, then a Shirley Horn–influenced fledgling singer-pianist working D.C. clubs, exhibited considerable promise. Her 1969 debut album, First Take, contained a hit single, the introspective “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and throughout the ’70s she remained on the pop charts with “Killing Me Softly,” “Where Is the Love?,” and “The Closer I Get to You.” Into the ’80s, however, her popularity began to wane, largely due to an increasing reliance on lackluster material and production that smothered her individuality. The Christmas Album is yet another betrayal of her potential, an impersonal, factory-tooled stocking stuffer. Apart from a few frayed edges, Flack’s voice remains vibrant, though it has taken on a rather brittle, metallic edge. But the warmth of her singing has diminished, replaced by a perfunctory approach to lyrics and phrasing. She attacks both ballads (“There’s Still My Joy,” “When There’s Love,” the title song) and rhythm numbers (genteelly funky versions of “We Three Kings” and “Little Drummer Boy”) with little regard for dynamics, intermittently slipping in mechanical melismata to counterfeit feeling. Various tracks feature strings, choirs, and steely guitar solos, but the result is disappointingly monotonous.
Bryson’s talent has matured as Flack’s has declined. Since his early days as a rather generic soul balladeer, he has expanded his vocal and expressive flexibility to the point where five years ago he comfortably joined the ensemble of Julie Andrews’ and Ben Kingsley’s The King and I studio recording. On Peace on Earth, Bryson’s robust, stirring tenor cuts through excessively elaborate orchestrations. Unlike Flack’s robotic decorations, his melodic embellishments of “The Christmas Song” convey emotional involvement and refresh that overroasted chestnut. Bryson’s yuletide grab bag is full of variety, holding everything from the frolicsome waltz “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to sensitively crooned versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to “This Christmas”’s effervescent funk. “O Holy Night,” a reverent duet with contemporary Christian singer Sandi Patti, is the CD’s unexpected highlight, filled with spirituality palpable enough give an atheist pause.
—Joel to the World E. Siegel
Hill Country Christmas
Willie Nelson With Bobbie Nelson
A surly interviewer once attempted to bait Roseanne Cash by saying her father can’t sing. “I know,” she replied. “But it’s the way he can’t sing.” So it is with Johnny’s fellow Highwayman Willie Nelson. He has known too well the Time of the Reefer for his voice not to be wrecked, but it’s an honest instrument, and he puts it to good use on Hill Country Christmas. All the C&W big shots talk about havin’ a down-home Christmas, but Nelson has actually done something about it, getting together with his sister, pianist Bobbie Nelson, for a casual session of traditional Christmas tunes both secular and religious. Along the way, he reprises “Pretty Paper,” invites Gene Autry in for a charming, low-key “Here Comes Santa Claus” that sounds as if it drifted in on long-lost old-time radio waves, complete with a smattering of canned applause, and brings out a moody new original, the Tex-Mex flavored “El Niño.” But it’s on the seasonal standards that the Nelsons shine. This is a studio production that sounds like a living-room sing by the piano—folks who love each other going through songs that matter to them. There’s an appealing unguardedness to the gathering. Willie picks his own guitar (turns out he can play that old rattletrap), and his willingness to be seen with flaws intact bespeaks not laziness but humility. His wanderings have been well documented, but when Willie comes home, it’s for real. Perhaps sometimes faith is simply an old song we never forget how to sing.
—Glenn “Little Saint” Dixon
A Very Special Christmas 3
How’s this for special—a bunch of pop stars with plenty better to do than write whole new songs for a mere compilation turn in shabby, lazy renditions of Christmas favorites? Perhaps they figure the kids who benefit from the seasonal efforts—Special Olympians—won’t notice that post-punk artists can’t be fucked to make an effort on their behalf. So here, kids, is Sting racing disdainfully through “I Saw Three Ships” to a bizarre, stripped-down arrangement (“Aw dey sailed in ta Beth-layhem…”). Natalie Merchant sleepwalks through the usually wonderful gospel number “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (arranged with horns, backup singers, and other superfluous fanciness), and, speaking of having no soul, teenage blues pinup Jonny Lang does his incredible simulation of a blues shouter impersonating Elvis performing “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” a surprisingly tough act to follow. (Even Trisha Yearwood ruined it on her Xmas album.) It’s not all bad news: Patti Smith evokes dust, weariness, and hope in her “We Three Kings”; Rev Run and the Christmas All Stars (with everyone—Mase, Puff Daddy, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Salt N’ Pepa, Onyx, and Keith Murray) do a pretty cool “Santa Baby.” Chris Cornell’s singing on “Ave Maria” isn’t spectacular, but the arrangement (by Natasha Shneider of Eleven) is—industrial and ecclesiastical, anxiously modern in its repetitiveness, but also hypnotic, reverent, and slightly scary; just a change in tempo is enough to jolt you into rethinking the tune even as it progresses. There is one great original—the Smashing Pumpkins’ touching “Christmastime” is as perfect an evocation of being little and full of cynicism and wonder in the ’70s as was “1979.”
—Arion Bergermeister Meisterberger
Animaniacs Starring in
A Hip-Hopera Christmas
What are we to make of something with a title like this? That it’s a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nonsense sounds just about right. Yakko and Wakko, the Warner Bros., and the Warner Sister, Dot, “star” as the three Christmas ghosts in what may be the sketchiest and least effortful adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever. The cartoon universe of the three crazy “kids” (mice? cats? monkeys?) that airs Saturday mornings under Steven Spielberg’s aegis is hardly well represented here by the Warners, Mr. Plotz (the destined-for-a-coronary studio executive in the Scrooge role), and gentle but moronic Ralph the security guard (here doing the Cratchit thing). Animaniac in-jokes are one thing—actually, here, they’re nothing—but what of Dr. Scratchansnif? Hello Nurse? Flavio and Marita the Eurotrash hippos? Plotz doesn’t make an engaging old miser, so the record is fancied up with lame stabs at boosting the energy by confusing listeners with an array of musical styles, all inappropriate. Every time you hear “Ho, ho, ho!” you’re supposed to read another panel on the fold-out sing-along instructions, as bad-ass R&B, dementedly wrong “jazz,” hiphop with training wheels, and a ringing bellow that may be what the producers would like to pass for opera emanate from the speaker. It’s sort of spoken-word, sort of musical (a hiphop rendition of “Deck the Halls” does nothing for either tradition), and pretty darn baffling overall. Is there an audience for this? Even a drawing of Slappy Squirrel as Marley isn’t fun enough. —Arion “Hark the Herald” Berger
Ho Ho Ho
RuPaul doesn’t have to sing—her appeal can be found right in the title of this record. Thinking of stuff like that is why she exists, and we love her for it. But this seasonal offering reveals what her fine disco records disguise—she can’t sing. It’s not a good sign for the imaginative candlepower of the crew behind this disc that it couldn’t think what to do with Dolly Parton’s “With Bells On” other than have RuPaul confess she’s in a country mood while a real(ish) country singer does the honors; and it’s all set to a dumb dance beat. And it kicks off the record. The campy stuff is just lazy—sex-switcheroos do all the work (“RuPaul the red-nosed drag queen/Had a very shiny nose”); “All I Want for Christmas” is a paean to plastic surgery; “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus” should be self-explanatory, and it’s still dumber than you think it’s gonna be. The dance stuff just stands there, pointlessly thumping, all to the exact same beat. Ru even gets “Santa Baby” wrong, an impossible feat only she and Madonna, so far, have accomplished. One bright light is Steven Van Zandt’s “All Alone on Christmas,” which holds its head high in spite of the surrounding desultory shenanigans. The arrangement is straightforward, and RuPaul sings unremarkably but with bare competence, and the tune—the tune!—is just unkillable. So Merry Christmas anyway, girl. Sad sad sad. —Yes, Virginia, There Is an Arion Berger
The Christmas I Love
Do your relatives bear no resemblance to the red-sweatered families in the Butterball ads? Did your Martha Stewart–wrapping paper-gilding experiment end in a midnight trip to the kitty ER and gold-leafed-kibble puke on your car seat? Do even your decorations look a little more, um, rustic than planned? You can still have a tasteful middlebrow holiday thanks to the populist but never too pop violin stylings of shaggy-haired classical heartthrob André Rieu. Rieu loves things, his way—witness the simple gifts of his recording of frothy waltzes, The Vienna I Love—but fortunately the Christmas he loves bears an uncanny resemblance to everyone else’s: sentimental with a dash of religious astringency, temporarily classical, mit Schlag. Rieu arranges traditional hymns and appropriate composed turns (Bach, Humperdinck) so that the hard stuff, like album opener “O Daughter of Zion” (Handel), offers just enough highbrow reassurance to permit him to ease off for the sing-along action—“White Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride,” for example. Harps are plucked, great cushy pillows of strings beckon, and horns add just enough majesty to let you know that the banjo and washboard stuff is a fun folk turn—not a joke on you, a joke for you. Praetorius’ “Christmas Rose” is really quite pretty; the selection from the “Four Seasons” (“Winter,” silly) is played with tenderness and respect. An artsy striver could do worse than accept a course in Longhair Celebration Wallpaper 101 from Rieu and his cast of dozens.
—God Rest Ye Merry, Arion Berger
Gabrieli Consort and Players/McCreesh
Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki
The big drawback of collecting classical recordings (aside from the cash outlay and some of those pasty-faced characters haunting the opera racks) is the endless search for the perfect performance. It’s as elusive as the Grail and, if found, could never satisfy expectations. Nothing inspires that quest as much as Handel’s Messiah, which survives in more editions and arrangements than “Silent Night.” And just as Mantovani and the Dickies have different notions of how that chestnut should go, so Messiah militants in the opposing camps of Victorian bloat and period-instrument astringency clash over interpretation. And the fun doesn’t stop there. Handel himself never performed Messiah the same way twice, and just which bells go with what whistles is a matter for debate in the roughly five-dozen versions floating around on CD. I, sick boy that I am, have amassed 45 recordings of the damn thing. (That’s four and a half feet of shelf space, for interested fellow addicts.) As it happens, No. 44 ranks pretty high, and that says something about the interpretive smarts behind it.
Paul McCreesh’s recreation of the 1754 Foundling Hospital performance with his Gabrieli Consort and Players has been overhyped as the reading for the next millennium. But, in its way, his melding of old and new (read: even older) performing traditions suggests a viable direction for the future. McCreesh’s authenticist pedigree is never in doubt—the orchestra of original instruments plays the score lean and well-ornamented—but beefy choral sound and some daringly slow tempos hark back to the 19th century’s stately, reverential approach to this piece. What transcends the issue of old-fashioned vs. older-fashioned on these discs, though, is the way text is treated as urgent drama, full of ecstasy and terror and hushed confidences. Under McCreesh, the soprano version of “But who may abide” becomes, possibly, the most thrilling moment in any of the CDs on the Messiah shelf (soprano Susan Gritton coming within hailing distance of Emma Kirkby’s spine-tingling vocalizing on Christopher Hogwood’s recording), and whatever earth is left is scorched by the B section of “He was despised,” not to mention the big-guns “Hallelujah Chorus.” “Hallelujah” is a kinder/gentler affair in Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan performance (No. 43 on my shelf), which is, generally speaking, less exhilaratingly bipolar than McCreesh’s. What the Japanese recording does offer in spades are tangy, long-breathed string playing, luminous choral blend, and outstandingly clear engineering that so vividly suggests a podium perspective that the CDs might as well come with a baton. Vocal soloists aren’t quite up to McCreesh’s near-perfect team (a throaty tenor and that fine bass David Thomas, sounding drier here than he did for Hogwood), but countertenor Yoshikazu Mera makes striking use of his baritonal lower register and warm, vibrato-laden high notes. Only a generation ago, the notion of an Asian ensemble having something to teach us about baroque performance practice would have seemed unlikely at best. But the cool and gorgeous tone Suzuki draws (sung in flawless Oxford English, by the way) seems as fine a model for the new millennium as the one put forward by those Gabrieli folks. My 45th Messiah recording—of Mozart’s marvelous re-orchestration—is arriving in installments c/o BBC Music Magazine. Part 1 sounds promising, but I can’t score my fix of Parts 2 and 3 until next month. If I can…just…make it…to January. —Jesus, Mary, and Joe Banno